Up Against Deadline, Democrats Blame Perry for Tanking Budget Deal

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Reps. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) andJim Pitts (R-Waxahachie)
Patrick Michels
Things aren't so sunny these days between House Appropriations vice chair Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie).

Until recently, this session’s budget negotiations seemed to be sailing along smoothly, but sudden pressure from Gov. Rick Perry has put negotiations on the rocks as lawmakers argue over $700 million for schools.

School funding has become a major sticking point for lawmakers on the budget conference committee, as they reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the budget bill. The Senate added $1.5 billion to current public education spending, and the House set aside $2.5 billion more, a partial restoration of the $5.4 billion the Legislature cut from schools in 2011.

After a Democratic caucus meeting today, Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), vice chair of the House Appropriations committee, said Democrats were united in supporting a plan the conference committee reached last Friday. That deal would dedicate $2.5 billion from General Revenue to education and $1.4 billion in new property taxes that would flow back into school funding formulas, for a total of $3.9 billion in new education funding, Turner said.

Democrats would have appeased Republicans, Turner said, by staying under the spending cap and even allowing $500 million originally intended for schools under House Bill 1025 to go toward other needs like fixing roads damaged by fracking equipment.

Turner said House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) met with him Tuesday night to reiterate the plan. Wednesday morning, though, the House Speaker’s office relayed a message from Perry, Turner said, that the deal would spend too much money on education.

“I think it’s important for the Republicans to decide what position they want to hold,” Turner said. “You cannot blame Democrats, and run away from blaming those groups in the Republican party, when they cannot agree themselves.”

Turner said Democrats were 55 strong in favor of the previous agreement, but now will not vote to tap the Rainy Day Fund for water and transportation unless the old deal is back on the table.

Turner said education funding is the only part of the budget Republicans want to cut in order to remain under the spending cap, so Perry is asking Republican members to only accept $3.2 billion for formula funding, along with another $300 million for the Teacher Retirement System. Republicans now want $700 million of the $1.4 billion in new property tax money to go elsewhere, possibly toward tax relief.

“The educational fund is being used as the slush fund for people to fund all their other projects,” Turner said.

We’ll have updated information after a budget meeting at the Capitol scheduled for 3 p.m.

Update at 3:28 p.m.: Reporters have just been told “the meeting has been postponed until further notice.” We’ll update as soon as there’s more.

Update at 4 p.m.: After signing the Michael Morton Act this afternoon, Perry spoke briefly about the budget negotiations. Texas has put a significant amount into public education in the last decade, he said.

While he didn’t respond to Turner’s claims, he disputed the idea that he was encouraging lawmakers to sacrifice one piece of the budget for another.

“I’m sure that there are people that would like to blow up the session with this bill,” he said. “Pitting one article against another article is not particularly productive, and I’m not going to participate in that.”

Perry reiterated that he wants $1.8 billion in tax relief, and a budget under the spending cap with adequate funding for water and transportation, but he shut down further questions.

“I’m not going to craft a budget here with you all today,” Perry told reporters.